A photo of the sun with red and orange hues.
Image Source: Luis Graterol on Unsplash

Marginalized Communities at Risk with Record Heat Waves

It’s officially summer, and it’s hot – real hot. Last week, record temperatures were recorded in dozens of U.S. cities, and over 60 million people were living under a heat advisory (NYTimes). And now, a heat wave affecting the Midwest is spreading eastward, bringing oppressive temperatures to more of the country. This week, about 70% of the U.S. population will see temperatures in the 90s, and almost 20% of people in the country will experience 100°F temperatures (CNN). PS – it’s not just here; record temperatures are also spreading across Canada, Western Africa, and Europe. These unyielding temperatures indicate the start of a scorching season for the country and underscore the severity of extreme temperatures’ impacts on marginalized communities.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average global temperature will rise by two to four degrees Celsius by the century’s end. However, a rise of just 1.5 degrees would be “near the upper limit of what’s tolerable” (KQED). Overshooting that mark means daily flooding along the East Coast (Press Herald), a billion people fleeing droughts and starvation (Reuters), and frequent heat waves severe enough to cook the organs inside your body (The Conversation). These aren’t worst-case scenarios. They’re projections of what happens should current trends continue. 

TAKE ACTION

Support a local initiative to keep your community cool:

• Donate to organizations like Blessings of Hope and Family Eldercare that distribute free fans to vulnerable communities needing relief from the rising heat.

• Help to pay off electricity bills on GoFundMe.

In a deeply unequal world, a global crisis has wildly uneven effects. A rising tide may lift all boats, but those closest to the shore drown first. There are some for whom climate catastrophe is a cause for hand-wringing concern about their hypothetical grandchildren’s living standards. There are others for whom the crisis arrived years ago. 

Neighborhoods of color affected by redlining, historic bank and government-sponsored housing discrimination, are five degrees hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods since they have dramatically less tree cover. In Portland, Oregon, they’re a shocking 13 degrees warmer (NPR). Communities of color are where state and business elites dump toxic chemicals, coal-fired power plants, and chemical factories across the country. “The climate emergency will have a disproportionate impact on Black and Brown communities” (Guardian) since “the lack of equitable investment in low-income communities leaves people even more at risk for climate change impacts” (NRDC). 

And there are compound challenges with the effects of rising temperatures. One significant one is energy usage. The heat puts more people relying on electric means of cooling, which can overwhelm the power grid, causing rolling blackouts and outages in lower-income and Black and Brown communities (Politico). Energy loss can threaten the health of people who rely on medical devices and further isolate people who cannot leave their homes. It also increases electricity bills, which can put financially strapped communities further into debt (NBC News). High temperatures also make living outside in the elements more threatening, directly affecting the wellbeing of unhoused people. It increases the burden on those who rely on public transportation, waiting outside for a bus or underground for a train with little shield from the heat. 

Some say that humans are killing the planet and that we are all at risk and to blame. This is untrue. Upper management and investors in multinational corporations and American government elites wield the power to change our collective reliance on power and energy, and how we live in relationship to this Earth (The ARD). Current messaging implies that individual consumption is to blame. Although we can choose to live more eco-friendly, we cannot change our relationship with this planet with solely individual actions. And in the interim, those most marginalized – often with the most limited capacity to make systemic change – have to suffer the consequences.

To preserve a habitable world for all of us and our descendants may require a fundamental shift in how we produce things and structure social and international relations. In the short term, a blanket approach to environmentalism will not suffice. Even major philanthropic foundations are starting to recognize that environmental racism and climate change affect poor nations and communities of color first (AP). Supporting the leadership of these communities in opposing the destructive systems that threaten life as we know it is a human imperative. 

And in the meantime, we must do what we can to minimize the impact of these temperatures. Local initiatives to provide housing, pay off electricity debt, and get A/Cs, fans, and cold water to individuals in need might feel small and insignificant in the face of an environmental crisis and the heat wave. Still, it’s the most important and direct way to protect lives right now.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Regions across the U.S. are experiencing a heat wave and record high temperatures at the start of the summer season. 

• Climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impact marginalized communities of color around the globe.

• Those heating the planet are powerful institutions like major corporations and the U.S. government.

• Communities must ban together to protect those most vulnerable from the impact of the heat.

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